Voices of the Holocaust
Translated from the Hungarian and introduced by Thomas Land
Auschwitz is a museum. The smoke has now dispersed,
and each generation to the end of history must make peace with the past and
resolve to live with its ability to attempt genocide.
Andras Mezei, who has just died in his native Budapest aged 78 years, has left behind a retrospective exploration of the Holocaust for our time. His voices of the past address us with urgency and directness unheard within museum walls. There are many voices of the Holocaust speaking to us of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity. They could be incomprehensible; Mezei's poetry makes them sound like our own voice.
Mezei is a major Jewish-Hungarian poet. He survived the Nazi attempt at the "ethnic cleansing" of Europe as a child in the Budapest Ghetto where some 17,000 souls perished around him from hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits.
Unlike other great poets of the Holocaust like Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Miklos Radnoti, Mezei declines to come to terms with death — indeed, his work is a celebration of the unconquerable spirit of his people. And unlike Anne Frank, he had the luxury of time to give voice to the concerns of the victims at the height of his literary powers.
NIGHTMARES: THE SURVIVOR
How many nights must come before
I need not wake up anymore?
They who ravished the robust women
among my forbears, they our tormentors
still live within me to this day
with the spilled blood of our menfolk.
So many Franks and Slavs and Mongols,
brave blades of the pogroms, lurk in my bones
yet, by the right of the mothers, the Jew
stares back at them from my face.
They've changed my brown eyes into blue,
and made my curly dark hair blond,
that rabble of all Teutonic Europe
who gather and bustle and stir in my cells,
they who have dressed my bones in their skin,
their white skin soft like fancy linen —
But as the rabbis have blessed the fate
of the Jewish people in the offspring,
and brought them up, despite the rapes,
from age to age as Jewish children,
still the murderers have blue eyes
and blue eyed also are the victims.
The people they've lived with in the village
are being herded in front of closed portals,
still and silent each. The fences
would conceal all sight, all feelings,
except for the tea-rose, the violet and weed
leaping through to reach out towards them.
When the children were torn from their mothers,
and the ghetto was searched for tiny creatures
left in hiding, and the cries and the screams
were drowned by loudspeakers blaring out lullabies,
and the children were crammed into lorries, a German
soldier turned to one pleading mother,
How many children have you?
and she replied, I have three —
then he said, You may take back one of them
and helped her on board the vehicle
to choose one, as three pairs of eyes lit up
and three pairs of arms expectantly opened
towards her: Mother, take me, me, me!
An eyewitness recalls that she
declined the choice. She left alone.
How many children have you?
She informs God, I have three!
HIS OWN COMMAND
He prescribed a frostbite ointment
for the sore foot of the guardsman.
And he still explained on the way
which chemist could supply it that day
under the rules of the early siege
of Budapest, as the soldier limped
along with him towards the place
of execution. The Jewish doctor
obeyed his own command.
The people stripped off their garments.
They did not weep. They did not shout.
They did not beg for mercy.
A grey-haired woman standing by
the freshly dug hole in the ground
cuddled a baby in her arms — she
sang for it, tickled it, and the child
rejoiced in rings of laughter.
Those tottering figures who wandered away
from the lengthy disintegrating
marching columns of the deported,
who left the highways
and took to the fields
soaked by the icy November showers
in flapping rags like windblown scarecrows,
those were my people, such easy targets
for the guard, folk hunted like rabbits,
yet who still attempted to beg,
yet who still were shot down while trying —
I remember them
when I take on the day and the dross
has not yet gathered in my heart.
The ones who gave up their personal cyanide tablets
to spare a child from agony in the gas ~
themselves have kindled the burning bush,
the ones who approached the end with dignity
herded to cruel death but not like cattle —
themselves have kindled the burning bush,
the ones who were able to dig their graves and toss
hell behind themselves with the clumps of earth —
themselves have kindled the burning bush.
Suddenly I speak in my mother's voice.
Suddenly I speak in my father's voice.
Suddenly I hear my people speak
in my voice.
A CHORUS OF PIOUS SOULS
A dreadful silence, even at Yom Kippur.
My Lord, there must have been a weighty reason.
The horror of the graves in mute fruition ~
My Lord, there must have been a weighty reason
that no relief came in our desperation,
my Lord, there must have been a weighty reason:
instead, the gendarme came to us, death and oppression,
my Lord, there must have been a weighty reason,
the hell of Nagyvarad Ghetto, persecution -
My Lord, there must have been a weighty reason:
our words took wings, our souls soared in devotion,
my Lord, there must have been a weighty reason
that He who had given the Torah showed no compassion
my Lord — there must have been a weighty reason.
THE STREET OF THE DEAD
I walk along that street as though
nothing had occurred there,
I recall each face as though
the residents were still present,
I name the name of every soul,
from house to house I walk and call
my brothers who still live there,
together, beyond the present.
IN THEIR PLACE: A DAUGHTER
My daddy's lost children: Eve and little Joe.
My mummy's lost children: Stevie and little Paul.
My daddy's marriage, a legendary love match.
But mummy mourned at every river ~ I know
she wished to die.
My daddy declared: his parents' graves lay here.
And mummy declared that people should not forsake
their parents' final resting place.
And thus they merged their equal losses, although
at first it was only
beneath the canopy
for the law took its time to confirm
the death of mummy's husband and daddy's wife.
Mummy wanted no children
after Stevie and little Paul;
but after Eve and little Joe,
my daddy yearned for babies more and more.
That is why I am here. I was named
after daddy's late daughter. I live in their place.
My mourning father was 54 years of age
and my mother was 42
when I was born.
Like ink on the blotting paper, the number
tattooed in Auschwitz splinters and spreads
on the inside of my lower left arm
when I ride the tram in the summer
and, forgetting myself, I happen
to reach up in my short sleeved-shirt
to hang on to the strap.
* * * *
May I never lift my right arm
if I forget the mark on my left.
ANDRAS MEZEI (1930-2008): poet, novelist and editor, a major chronicler of the Holocaust. Unusually for a Hungarian poet, his work won early recognition in several European languages as well as Hebrew. He was a literary journalist most of his life. After the collapse of Communist administration, he founded Budapest City Press and the literary-political journal CET that forged a leading role in the debate and reconstruction of Eastern Europe. He published a substantial volume of collected poetry shortly before his death. He is survived by the poet Judit Toth, his companion over the past 15 years, their daughter Anna, and his son Gabor from his late wife Magda Szekely, another noted Holocaust poet.
THOMAS ORSZAG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in Budapest
Some of his poems are reproduced in the Annexe under Thomas Land
Andras Mezei: Many-sided poet and editor
Obituary from The Independent Friday, 27 June 2008
András Mezei was a many-sided and accomplished Hungarian writer and poet. One of the defining experiences of his life was the period of Nazi terror in German-occupied Hungary during 1944. His father perished in Auschwitz and although Mezei himself survived, the suffering he and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews underwent left an emotional scar on him for life.
This was evident from the short but poignant poem "Szelektáláson" ("Selection", 1993) in which he speaks in the voice of an Auschwitz survivor:
With his gloved hand Mengele
touched my shoulder. Separating us. My mother
died there, and since then I have been dragging
my left shoulder as if it belonged to another body
in this world, the God of which I do not know.
After the war, Mezei trained as a locksmith and a
lathe operator before leaving for the newly established state of Israel in 1949.
After a year and a half in Israel, he returned to Communist Hungary, where for
some years he worked as an engineering technician. After the suppression of the
1956 revolution he was considered reliable enough to be given a job in the
thoroughly purged press department of the Ministry of Education. His poetic
début took place at about the same time, in the notoriously unrepresentative
verse anthology Tuztánc (Fire Dance, 1958), in which, instead of poetic talent,
political reliability was the measure.
This, however, gave a boost to Mezei's career, for from 1958 until 1992 he was a frequent contributor to and a member of the editorial board of the weekly Élet és irodalom. During this period he studied Hungarian literature at the University of Budapest.
Though in the initial years of the Kádár regime Mezei unquestioningly accepted the policies of the Communist dictatorship, with time his views underwent a change, and his interest in Jewish culture re-emerged. He was no longer able to deny that the 1956 revolution had succeeded in some measure, by achieving more freedom and better living conditions for Hungarians. And as a result he wrote the script of Szerencsés Dániel ("Lucky Daniel", 1983), one of the first Hungarian films to address the issue of the Communist régime's lying clichés about the uprising.
Also during the 1980s he began to explore the contradictions of "Socialist" society and wrote a number of polemical pieces which were collected in Ilyen gazdagok vagyunk? ("Are We that Rich?", 1981) and in Ki beszél itt már Mexikóról? ("And Who Still Talks Here about Mexico?", 1986). An interesting collection of his essays, mostly on the Jewish-Hungarian dialogue, was Kettos kötodés ("Dual Belonging", 2003).
From his first collection Torlódó ido ("Piled-up Time", 1961) onwards András Mezei kept returning to Jewish themes. Some of these relate to his immediate family and some to Old Testament figures, while others are inspired by two famous sculptures by Michelangelo, Moses and David. These poems are more convincing than Mezei's efforts at creating grand "revolutionary" syntheses in the manner of his poem "De profundis . . ."
His poetry, first influenced by the poets of the Ujhold ("New Moon") generation, gained strength by absorbing surrealistic techniques which are already apparent in the poetic selection Fehér malom ("White Mill", 1978). It was, however, only after the change of régime that Mezei was able fully to return to his favourite subject, first with Zsidó versek ("Jewish Poems", 1990), then with Adorno (1993). The latter collection, some of its pieces translated into English by Thomas Land, was a poetic collage of eye-witness accounts of the Nazi persecution of Jews, both in Hungary and elsewhere. It is partly based on the works of Hanna Krall and Marek Edelman, but also contains poems which signal acceptance of the poet's dual identity: "I did not ask God/ to be born a Jew – so I have no/ chance to choose" ("They Chose Me"). In 2007 a large collection of Mezei's verse was published in Budapest, entitled Hármaskönyv ("A Triple Book").
In 1992 Mezei launched the publishing house Belvárosi Könyvkiadó (City Publishing House) and a year later the cultural periodical C.E.T. ("Central European Times"). As president of the Hungarian-Israeli Friendship Society from 1989 onwards, Mezei was invited to Israel several times and he also visited England on one occasion. Amongst his literary awards, the Israeli Kotzetnik Prize (1986) and the Hungarian János Arany Prize (1997) were the highest.
A novel set in the Budapest of 1943-44, A csodatévo, was published as The Miracle Worker in Thomas Kabdebo's English translation in 1999. Mezei's poems in the anthology In Quest of the Miracle Stag, Vol II (2003) were translated into English by Peter Zollman and Thomas Land.
THE POETRY of András Mezei (1930-2008)
is attracting great attention in his native Hungary during the country’s
Holocaust Memorial Year of 2014, marking the organized murder in 1944 of close
to 600,000 citizens in Auschwitz and elsewhere. The victims were mostly Jews;
they also included Roma, homosexuals and some political dissidents.
That crime, perpetrated by the Hungarian state in collaboration with Nazi Germany, occurred in the final phase of the Second World War when an Allied victory was already obvious. This year’s memorial celebrations are being marred by a shameful recurrence of Neo-Nazi racism in Europe.
Mezei, a major Jewish-Hungarian writer, survived the Holocaust as a child marked for murder. The poem below is the title piece of a forthcoming anthology of Hungarian Holocaust poetry in Thomas Land’s English translation (The Survivors, Smokestack Press, England, 2014). This poem has never yet been published in any translation.
Hanged: A Sketch
He held a fiddle in his left,
a goose brought down, its long limp neck
hung black in death – and to this day
I sense its silenced vocal cords.
What he was not allowed to say
what we can never comprehend
is played out by a hoary bow
upon the slackened silver strings
drawn by the Angel of Good Death
in flight above the snowbound fields:
blue frost upon his grizzled beard
and bunkers and Arbeit macht frei...
And still that violin plays on.
Its melody will never cease.
I see a bald, a silver skull.
I bless my father’s silver bones.
My Father: A Legend
That very death
that very corpse
defines the district
like a plumb-rule
in true suspended
of all of life,
its snowbound plane
and stark protrusions,
projects all human
a line across
This line so straight –
like weighted down rope
or stretched out cord
or lifting smoke,
a yearning darkened
through which the body
may rise to reach
And as a single
beam of light
remains to hold
the tilted head,
the dazzling ray
and gains in sharp
The beam describes
the path for this
of fateful signals:
thus the body
must meekly follow
the faithful breath.
The tightening throat –
the rattling cry –
the fleeing breath –
the bursting soul
to rip its road
of focused light
towards the stars,
and cleave apart
of deathly darkness,
and find a rest
upon the columns
of air supported
by the Children
of the Light.
The jawbone points
towards the sky –
the shoulder bone
has lost the fiddle –
Above the earth,
beneath the sky
a broken corpse
that would not soar
above the hill
of scaffolds, nor would
the light as though
it were supported
by the soul.
The joints are loosened.
acquires its own
and separate weight.
The neck, the limbs
Like the stars,
The sagging burden
of the arms
weighs down the shoulders.
The heavy wooden
hung from the feet
extend the ankles,
stretch the knees,
reshape the body.
Death is accomplished.
At last, the final
script of symbols:
The opened mouth,
the hanging tongue
blue like a flower
on a winter twig.
The busy stripes
of the prison garment
come to rest.
Beneath the sky
before the heaven
the flesh, the bones,
the prison rags
the corpse dissolves
within the picture.
Over the desolate
above the fiddler
glows a gentle
Five shafts of light
direct my gaze
towards the City.
And... Here I am.*
Love in Auschwitz
Birdsong, dusk. Departure from Auschwitz.
Resurgent love steps out from the gates,
immortal love whose skeletal essence
could never be consumed by the flames.
Past soaring hopes, reality
slowly settles from the smoke:
the heat of incandescent mess-tins –
a dented spoon beneath the earth –
and like that mouth, that Gothic cavity
that spewed them, gods and fantasies
decompose amidst the dental
gold extracted from the dead.
The gas decays. The bunkers crumble.
The deportation trains withdraw.
And... Here I am, and here the arms
to hold the living world in... love.
For love redeems the fence of death:
I share your being and you mine
together in the light and silence
beneath our gagged and distant stars.
*The Bible/Isaiah 6:8 – “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send?... And I said, Here am I. Send me!”
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His poetry appears in current issues of Acumen, The New Writer and Stand and in recent issues of Ambit, The London Magazine and Mistress Quickly’s Bed.
DARLING, I TAKE
Holocaust Poetry for Our Time,
Translated from the Hungarian
and Edited by Thomas Land
THE POETRY of András Mezei (1930-2008) mourns the murder of some half a million Hungarian citizens committed by the Hungarian state in collaboration with Nazi Germany at the close of WW2. The following pieces will be included in The Hundred Years War, a landmark anthology to be published by Bloodaxe in April. More poetry by Mezei, a major Jewish-Hungarian writer, will follow in Survivors, a Holocaust anthology in Thomas Land’s English translation, to be released by Smokestack in June.
LETTER FROM NUSI
And now at last we are quite certain
we shall be taken shortly – but where?
Kolozsvár? Várad? Újfalu?
And then the wagons? Where from there?
But you don’t need to fret about us,
outside, the bags are all prepared,
the basket of food, a pot of honey,
a pair of backpacks, the bedding linen –
the cart is waiting by the portal
for grandma’s ride (poor gran’s old feet!)
and mum has sent a card to dad.
No time left. Still, what really matters,
the place is tidied up for winter.
Sanyikám, darling, I take my leave.
And tell our father he’s in my heart.
Whatever our lot, we shall be safe –
God shall provide.
She carefully unlaced her grandmother’s boots,
then kicked off her own. Before the pair: the river.
Behind them: Jason, the neighbours’ son from the square
lit by the frozen snow – and his machinegun.
Jason, discharging his first-ever magazine.
Jason, standing stunned as the tumbling bodies
are whisked away and gone with the turbulent current.
…Had he done that? Was there so little to life?
You won’t be needing these, said he,
and flung my mother’s photograph
among his booty, and my shirt.
I still retained heaped on my blanket
the things I had to bring: a mess-tin,
my boots and socks, warm underclothes,
a bar of shaving-soap – and I had
that irremovable mark on my finger
in the place of my looted wedding ring.
No cry of anguish, no manner of wailing
is more heartrending than the sheer numbers:
for the transportation in 51 days
provincial Jews by 200 SS troops
aided by 5,000 Hungarian
gendarmes and hundreds of volunteers –
they were detained at first in the ghettoes,
they were then taken into the brick-works
already stripped of their family savings,
then caged in cattle-trucks, 80 in each, and
conveyed without water and food to Mengele
from the first day of the occupation –
processed by people obeying orders
who never outdid the German commands
but willingly obliged the commanders –
Nearly half a million provincial Jews:
Nearly 10% of them stayed alive.
TOWARDS THE DNIESTER
As the marchers dragged themselves forward,
the bare-footed peasants by the road
picked out the choicest boots and trousers
and, at their bidding, the guards
shot down the occasional well-clad prisoner
in exchange for a handful of notes.
The deathmarch stumbled on towards Orhei.
The peasants collected their wares.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His last book was Christmas in Auschwitz (Smokestack, 2010).
Thoman Orszag-Land Andras Mezei